Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Spin Doctoring 101

According to Merriam-Webster, a spin doctor is "a person (such as a political aide) whose job involves trying to control the way something (such as an important event) is described to the public in order to influence what people think about it."

"Spin doctor" may also refer to a member of the 1990's eponymous band, but today's post is not about them (spoiler alert: There is an excellent likelihood that I will never write a blog about them; sorry); it's about the value of creating good publicity for your music or for an upcoming concert, particularly during interviews, where the ability to "stay on message," or to "spin" your story, can come in handy.

A Cautionary Tale, or How Not To Conduct Yourself During an Interview

Composers are sometimes interviewed. Gather 'round, kids, to hear how I sabotaged my first such opportunity!

When I was an undergraduate student, I submitted two short movements for chamber orchestra to a "call for scores" by the Canadian Contemporary Music Workshop (CCMW), a Toronto organization that "workshops" (i.e., provides a rehearsal and recorded read-through of your submission, with feedback from the performers) new works by "emerging" Canadian composers, some of which are given the additional honour of being featured on an evening concert.

I had not yet "emerged" at the time this took place. In fact, I'm still working on it, but I digress. My submissions were selected to be workshopped, but they were not selected for performance on the evening concerts.

Oh well, I thought. Better than nothing. And certainly better than the figurative donkey-kicks to the rear that are commonplace when attempting to emerge as a composer!

The workshop/rehearsal went well, thanks to both the quality of the musicians, who were excellent sight-readers, and (he added, boastfully) the staggering beauty of my parts, over which I had slaved for over a month, using a nifty, plastic music stencil, a device that ensured that all noteheads, stems, accidentals, articulations, etc., were uniform in size, producing a result that was as close to published music as possible with a pencil. So painstaking was the process that I never used the stencil again.

The musicians reacted positively to my music and asked the administrator why it hadn't been selected for an evening performance. "Why the hell is this not on the programme?" the first violinist demanded. "Yeah!" somebody else said, possibly in response to an unrelated question. Or possibly it was me; who can remember such things? Demands by first violinists must be taken seriously. The performers' endorsement was communicated to the CCMW artistic team, who were sufficiently impressed that they added my pieces to the evening concert programme. Either that, or they were desperate, perhaps having just realized that their concert was too short.

Either way, I was, of course, pleased.

To clarify, I had obviously hoped that my compositions would be chosen for an evening performance when I submitted them, but when they weren't, I was not particularly upset. That's the way things go in attempting to become a composer, or indeed an artist of any kind; you accumulate many more rejections than affirmations, and I didn't look at this as a complete rejection, since it gave me the opportunity to hear my music rehearsed by professionals in a workshop setting.

So, when I learned the good news that they had decided to programme it on a concert after all, my reaction was, "nice!" or "cool!" or something similarly moderate, not "OH MY GOD I CAN'T BELIEVE THIS IS HAPPENING! I CAN DIE A HAPPY MAN NOW!"

Not Sally Field at the 1985 Oscars, in other words. Who was awesome, in case you didn't catch her acceptance speech.

Opportunity Blown

The CCMW administrator decided that this story would make a great publicity angle — "Musicians' Endorsement Spells Boffo Break for Deservedely-Obscure Local Composer" or something like that — and got someone she knew at CBC radio to do a segment about it on the national "Arts Report."

A CBC  reporter subsequently telephoned me to have a pre-interview chat, presumably to determine my suitability as an  interview subject (although I did not realize this at the time). She asked several questions that clearly communicated the reaction she wanted from me, such as, "you MUST be REALLY excited to have this opportunity land on your lap like this!" and "It must be so AMAZING to have had HUGE break at such an early stage in your career!"

I, being obtuse, gave some lame response, such as "Well, yes, I’m really looking forward to hearing a good performance of my music."

This may seem like a perfectly reasonable response to you — at least it does to me — but the sad fact is that this response was sorely lacking in the enthusiasm department. An enthusiasm-fail, if you will.

My general policy on gushing (effusive or exaggerated enthusiasm) is to avoid it unless the situation unequivocally calls for it. Examples of such unequivocal situations would include (but are not limited to) the following:
  1. A snow day resulting in school cancellation;
  2. My wedding day;
  3. The birth of my children;
  4. All achievements by my children, or, for that matter, the children of people I care about;
  5. Achievements by my students;
  6. Achievements by my cats, or any cats, for that matter;
  7. Winning an Academy Award for Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role, despite the fact that I have never acted in my life, beyond pretending to know what I am doing when I teach or compose;
  8. Winning a large sum (in excess of $10 million) in a lottery; or
  9. The consumption of 2-3 jars of excellent mead. I have never actually consumed any mead, but my understanding is that it is made from fermented honey, which sounds quite yummy, and I strongly suspect that it would lead to expressions of tremendous enthusiasm on my part. About anything at all.
In any event, with a restrictive policy like this, and without any mead at hand, you can probably guess that I responded to the reporter's questions with insufficient enthusiasm for her liking.

What I realized after the fact was that the reporter wanted a "feel good" story about a nobody (i.e., me) getting the opportunity of a lifetime, and she wanted the hapless schmuck (i.e., me) to gush about it. She wasn't trying to report news; she was trying craft an interesting "human-interest" story for her listeners.

Whether she SHOULD have been trying to craft a story that basically followed a script she had already constructed beforehand is immaterial; this was one of those "it is what it is" situations, meaning that this is the way she was operating (and it is probably the way many journalists often operate), and I ought to have recognized that and used the opportunity to my advantage, thereby gaining a modicum of publicity for my music, which it had never had.

Perhaps the following level of enthusiasm was what she was after, and yes, I am in a silly mood:
Q: "How do you feel about this wonderful opportunity landing in your lap? You must be very excited!"
Okay, so perhaps it was good that I didn't go as over-the-top as the above, but, nevertheless, I could have responded more enthusiastically. Alas, I did not know how the spin-doctoring game was played.

The reporter was clearly getting frustrated with me. "You don't sound like you're very excited by this," she exclaimed at one point, berating me for not playing this game very well.

No? Perhaps this was because I WAS NOT VERY EXCITED BY THIS. Yes, in retrospect, I think that was a big part of the reason I sounded as I did.

I mean, I was pleased of course, but come on! We were discussing a new-music concert! We'd be lucky to get about 30 people to show up, most of whom would be there because their child or friend was having a composition performed, and this did not strike me as a hugely exciting proposition. I looked forward to having a good performance of my music, which virtually never happened in those days, and that was about it.

The reporter chatted with me a little longer, and said she would drop by my apartment the next day with recording equipment to interview me in person.

After I hung up, I reflected on our conversation and swiftly (but not swiftly enough!) deduced that she had wanted me to demonstrate greater excitement, and I resolved to do this the next day during the actual interview. I practiced on my cats, which only served to alarm them.

Secretly though, I think they were nonetheless impressed.

By the next day I had actually worked myself up to an unusually-high (for me) level of excitement in anticipation of the interview, although my cats were still eying me guardedly when they weren't napping. My first interview! And on a national radio show! It would be very cool if my relatives in Alberta heard this! I got up early and donned some non-hobo attire for a change, and waited patiently for the reporter to show up. Or call. Then I waited some more, less patiently… As I continued to wait, the anxiety level started to elevate…

Well, I hung around my apartment all day in an increasingly nervous state, but the reporter did not show up. Or call. Obviously, this was a a perplexing (initially) and depressing (subsequently) letdown. No call, no message; she just decided to ditch me, but neglected to let me know. To quote Jar-Jar Binks, a well-known-but-dangerously-incompetent diplomat, how wude!

A big reason I try not to get too excited about things that fall short of those listed under my very sensible "gushing policy" above is that when I do, and they don’t work out, it can be devastating. Such was was the case here.

The day after that, I was listening to the CBC "Arts Report" in the morning and sure enough, they had a story about the CCMW, but they had interviewed another young composer for their CCMW story, and this composer seemed very excited by the whole thing; she was gushing impressively. I was not mentioned in the story. Opportunity blown!

Well, of course that further rubbed salt on my already-wounded psyche, which, unfortunately, is the way we learn many of life’s lessons. Another way would be to read this blog, but there were no blogs at the time.

And the Moral of This Story is…

What I learned from that experience, and subsequent ones, is that when reporters or publicity people talk to you, they may or, more probably, may not care about you or your music, but they do care about constructing a story that will interest their audience. You should therefore try to give them something that will make for a good story, ideally delivered with some enthusiasm or at least a strong sense of conviction, while at the same time making the points about your music that you feel are important. Have an agenda, in other words.

Politicians do this all the time during interviews, and it can be really annoying. They respond to questions by making short, prepared, self-aggrandizing speeches, irrespective of what they were asked, like this:
Q: How do you plan on resuscitating the stagnant economy, which has basically ground to a halt during your first term in office? 
A: Nothing is a higher priority than the economy, because the people of this great nation want to work, and they want a government that is accountable, a government that listens to people, and a government that cares about ALL people! Fiscally responsible spending, combined with prudent cuts to outdated  programmes, will produce HUGE gains for the economy, which means more money in EVERYONE'S pocket, but especially, the MIDDLE CLASS! I LOVE THE MIDDLE CLASS!
Impressive that so many words can add up to a bunch of meaningless platitudes that basically say nothing at all! And yet it happens all the time.

However, when an artist is interviewed, no one expects blow-hardy, meaningless platitudes. I'm not sure people expect much of anything, frankly, so you basically have carte blanche to make whatever points you wish, if you can skillfully weave them, however tenuously, into actual responses to questions asked. Like this:
Q: You must be very excited to have your music performed on this concert!
A: I was blown away by how good the musicians sounded during rehearsals — they are fantastic performers, fully committed to these exciting, brand new compositions, and I'd be excited to be at tonight's concert even if my music wasn't being performed! I've been at rehearsals of the other works on the programme, and the people who come to the concert are going to hear some exciting, amazing, and profoundly-moving music. So yeah, I'm definitely excited to have my music included on such a great programme, but I'm equally excited to hear everyone else's music as well!
I recommend thinking carefully about the story or “angle” that you want to communicate before you do an interview, and then doing your best to communicate these points succinctly. Try to keep it simple; what’s the main thing you want people to know? If there is an opportunity to make a second point, what would that be? What do you think would captivate the attention of a potential concert-goer? What image of yourself would you like to project?

Have an awareness that, in most cases, most of the audience for this interview will be lay people who will probably not be very interested in technical jargon (for hilarious examples of meaningless gobbledygook, check out The Contemporary Classical Composer's Bullshit Generator Javascript).

Here's an example of meaningless-techno-babble-with-extreme-attitude that I made up:
“I commenced by constructing a scale based on the familiar 014 trichord, which I don't expect you or any member of the general public would understand, but who cares, because I don't give a damn about idiots. Of course, when cleverly transposed three times, the 014 trichord forms a hexachord whose possibilities were recognized by ancient (albeit pedestrian) composers such as Liszt and Schoenberg to be very fertile in terms of generating a rich but startlingly original (which I mean in a quasi-literal sense) sound palette. The sonic possibilities inherent in this neo-stochastic rationalization exercise are revealed in my third, sixth, and nineteenth "movements," or should I say, "stagnants," because really, that's what they are, in ways that have heretofore only "scratched" the surface, historically speaking. Or should I say, "marred," because that is another word for "scratched." I am not able to reveal more than that, because my competitors (who, without exception, are both scurrilous and unscrupulous) would steal my ideas (and therefore my glory), and I would then be compelled to initiate litigation against them in order to protect my highly-intellectual property. I have sued hundreds of composers in the past week alone! I am not to be trifled with, obviously. Before dismissing you, I will make one final point: I would rather have my masterworks performed in an empty concert hall than have a single fool show up expecting to "understand," or "relate" to the music. Nay, I say let them visit the hardware store, or go bowling, or some such pointless activity. I will take no follow-up questions at this time. Now be gone before I feel compelled to strike you!”
Disclaimer: The long, run-on paragraph above does not represent my views in any way. I like visits to hardware stores. I like bowling. I do not knowingly use the 014 trichord in my music. I like it when people show up at a concert that has my music on it. I know I shouldn't, but I do…

Most people think of music as a form of emotional expression, and yet composers often seem uncomfortable about describing their music in this way, preferring to use jargon to describe their composition process instead. So, don't be afraid to show some enthusiasm as you talk.

It is useful to know something about your audience; if you are speaking to fellow composers or composition students, then use as much technical jargon as you want. If you are speaking to an audience of new-music fanatics, you can probably get away with describing your process in this way as well. But if you are speaking to a more general audience, such as radio listeners or people at a symphony orchestra concert, it might be good to describe the music in a more programmatic way, perhaps sharing some personal tidbits along the way.

But what if your music is without programmatic content? Well! Then you must find something else to talk about, ideally, something that will capture the imagination of someone listening to you speak. Either that, or start giving your music programmatic titles…

Actually, I must confess that it is for this very reason that I decided to start using programmatic titles for my music many years ago, after being a firm believer that "Chamber Piece No. 3," "Overture," "Prelude and Scherzo," etc., were perfectly good titles for compositions; Beethoven mostly avoided programmatic titles, and it seemed to go pretty well for him, so why not follow his lead?

However, after a few interviews and conversations with audience members who frequently wanted to know what the music was about, what it represented, what it meant, it occurred to me that by not having more imaginative titles I was creating barriers between my music, which I mostly tried to make as expressive as possible, and the audience, and thus I think almost everything I have written for about twenty-five years has a descriptive title, or subtitle, as in "Interlude for String Orchestra: La Muerte Me Está Mirando" (Death is Watching Me; note the clever use of the Spanish language. Which I happen to speak, since I grew up in Venezuela).

Of course, this can be a difficult challenge when, as is often the case, I am not thinking of any particular programmatic content as I write the music… In cases like these, I listen to the music many, many times, trying to figure out what emotions are triggered in me by the music. I also play the music for my test market (i.e., my wife and kids) and ask for their thoughts and reactions about the music. Sometimes even the cats contribute to the process, although their ideas usually centre around food, or replenishing our supply of catnip-stuffed toys. So if one day I write something called, "Get me Some Damn Catnip Toys NOW!", you'll know where I got the idea.

To Summarize…

To summarize, it is useful for composers to be aware of the benefits of communicating well with the public, if we want people to show up at our concerts and listen to our music.

This is perhaps obvious, but communicating in this way, connecting with an audience based on your ability to describe your music, is not always easy to do, which means that it would be a good strategy to plan your talking points, and maybe even try them out on people that you know and ask them for honest criticism and suggestions.

To some degree, I think that audience members just want to know something about you, perhaps to know if they can connect with you as a person or not, and hearing you talk candidly about your music from the stage before a performance will give them that, irrespective of what you say. But what you say matters too, which is why it is good to work out the way in which you want to "spin" your story.

This is something you can practice in composition class (or with friends and family), by the way; your instructor can give everyone a limited time period (perhaps two to three minutes) to discuss their music, and then class members can give feedback and suggestions to each other. Or class members could interview one another, again followed by feedback from other classmates.

Now I feel compelled to write some catnip-themed chamber music, and so I will finally end this post! Hope you enjoyed it!